May 22, 2008

Open source gets an "A" grade at UniversityReaders

Author: Tina Gasperson

When Bassim Hamadeh was a student at the University of California, San Diego, he experienced firsthand the challenge of procuring the right textbooks for his classes. "They were high-priced, poor quality custom textbooks," Hamadeh says. So he started planning a business that would make it easier for professors to create and publish high-quality custom texts, and provide those materials to students at an affordable price. Since its launch in 1992, Hamadeh has been running UniversityReaders on open source software.

College textbooks are big business for book publishers and sometimes, much to the dismay of students, for professors. Often, what students end up with is an expensive mish-mash of "required" documents, study guides, and CDs that often go unused. To add to the chaos, professors often make poor quality copies of textbooks that violate the copyrights of the original authors and publishing companies. As a freshman at UCSD, Hamadeh was so frustrated by his experience purchasing the required texts for his classes that he was motivated to launch UniversityReaders while he was still a student. At first, the company was strictly bricks and mortar, but as the World Wide Web evolved to allow ecommerce applications, Hamadeh was quick to evolve his business too.

He's been a fan of Linux since the beginning, when his IT manager, Sean Nakamura, suggested it. Later, when UniversityReaders went online, and Hamadeh was looking for a reasonably-priced customer relationship management application, his IT manager highly recommended open source software. "We were looking in particular for a CRM solution for our sales team," Hamadeh says. "We had just launched the inside sales group and were looking to launch an outside sales team. One option was GoldMine, but we wanted to be able to access the information online, and we needed an easy installation. Microsoft was also grossly expensive." They found SugarCRM about three years ago, and Hamadeh says he loves it so much he's now a big fan of open code. "When we first started, absolutely, [IT manager Nakamura] pushed Sugar. It's interesting what happened. Our IT manager got us onto it, but now I'm the advocate for open source. If we have an issue or problem, the first thing we ask is, what open source solutions exist?"

SugarCRM's community version used to be licensed with its own SugarCRM Public License, a non-OSI-approved license modeled after the Mozilla Public License, except that it includee a clause requiring those who use the code to provide proscribed attribution to Sugar. Now, it is licensed with the GPLv3. At first Hamadeh used the free version of SugarCRM, but has since adopted the commercial, proprietary version -- which includes technical support.

Now that Hamadeh can afford the paid version of SugarCRM, he has realized other benefits from having access to the source code. "With open source, you can manipulate the software. That kind of integration makes our life easier. You can customize it and it's not going to cost you an arm and a leg." Hamadeh has appreciated the growth of open source over the last ten years. "These are products that are becoming better. And you're not limited to the engineering talent of a small team. It's a collective good thing."

Hamadeh cautions Internet entrepreneurs using open source against what he calls overcustomization. "Have you thought carefully about implementation and the customization you're going to make? It is so easy to customize, that you may overcustomize, and ultimately you're not following your business processes." Hamadeh says choosing to build a business on open source is a "no-brainer. You should look at open source solutions first before you get caught up into some sophisticated sales pitch."


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